By David Cruz
At La Casa de Don Pedro in Newark, staff are preparing for the new school year where they expect over 600 kids to enroll in their head start and preschool programs. Executive Director Ray Ocasio knows about Gov. Chris Christie’s so-called Fairness Formula and, like almost every urban-based preschool provider, he doesn’t think much of it.
“I’d like to think it’s a joke. But it’s a sad joke,” he scoffed.
But the governor says he’s dead serious about turning the state’s school funding formula on its head and that includes no special protections for the Abbott-decision mandated full-day preschool, which has created early childhood education opportunities for thousands of kids across the state, especially in poorer, urban districts like Newark. Ocasio says his programs have already suffered from flat funding from the state for almost six years.
“We were already bleeding in terms of the quality of the program being affected by virtue of the fact that we’ve had to make cuts because costs continue to rise so that we’ve had to cut classroom materials, some of our field trips for the kids and some of the technology that kids have as part of normal classroom operations,” he added.
Gloria Jerez runs one of La Casa’s three early childhood centers. She says a cut from the state would be catastrophic to her program. She says without full-day preschool, hundreds of Newark kids would fall even further behind. She says her program will not be able to accommodate the same number of students as it does currently.
“Not at all because we will have to cut — because of the funding cuts — we will have to cut the number of children that we serve, and that’s not a good thing for our families,” she added. “What are we going to do with those kids?”
But Christie — who has said all along that he considers preschool little more than a babysitting service — says Abbott districts need to sink or swim without what he says is a funding imbalance created by the Supreme Court’s Abbott decision. But advocates point to studies that say kids who have access to preschool do better socially, academically and even physically than kids who don’t.
“Children in Union City score a third of a grade level above the national average, not above the national average for school kids, above the national average for all kids,” said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “Now one of the reasons they do that is that they get two years of full-day preschool education in a program that I think is arguably the best on the planet.”
Price tag for that is $27 million. In Newark it’s $87 million. Camden, $29 million. That’s a lot of money for urban school districts where the governor says the final product is often substandard. But in places like La Casa, says Jerez, preschool is a make or break for many families.
“If we don’t do that, who else is going to do it?” asked Jerez.
The best thing service providers can say about Christie’s Fairness Formula is that, despite his summer-long tour promoting it, chances for its legislative approval are slim.